The first time Michael Moore encountered Donald Trump, the filmmaker uncharacteristically held his tongue. The two had been booked as guests in 1998 on Roseanne Barr’s afternoon talk show, The Roseanne Show, taping at New York’s Tavern on the Green. Trump’s The Art of the Deal had been published in 1987 while Moore had already earned a reputation as a cheeky provocateur out to puncture capitalism’s balloon with his 1989 doc Roger & Me, and so when Trump spotted Moore, he threatened to walk.
One of the show’s producers pulled Moore aside: Could he convince the skittish real estate developer to stay? Agreeing to help, Moore introduced himself to Trump and promised he’d keep the chatter light. “We did the show. I did not bring up anything political, financial, anything that would have upset him,” Moore recalls, settling into a chair in the conference room of his Manhattan production offices on a recent late-August night. “It wasn’t until I saw him running for president that I realized I’d been played. That he got his way. And I thought, ‘Wow, he manipulated that whole situation. This guy is not stupid.’ Lesson learned.”
This time out, as Moore, 64, readies his newest documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9, which will kick off the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 6, he’s not holding back. “Trump is our Frankenstein and we are Dr. Frankenstein,” he declares, before offering one of the most unexpected pop star-related explanations for Trump’s unlikely rise. “We have helped to create a situation that has allowed us to end up with Trump. The dumbing down of our society through the media, the lack of education through poor schools, allows for a dumbed-down electorate, and for him to be able to actually get 63 million votes.” In the opening moments of his new film, as the comedy curdles into horror, Moore asks bluntly, “How the fuck did this happen?”
The movie comes at a key moment for both Moore and the republic. His 2004 anti-Bush diatribe, Fahrenheit 9/11, remains the top-grossing documentary of all time domestically (with $222.4 million worldwide), but his last major film, 2016’s Where to Invade Next, got only a perfunctory release. He’s looking to ride the current boom in documentary film and a crescendo of anti-Trump fervor to turn his new movie into a come-to-Jesus moment for depressed progressives and a rallying cry for insurgent politicians lining up for the midterms.
Moore’s not prepared to say a Democratic takeback of the House, let alone the Senate, is a fait accompli, but he predicts, “There’s going to be a tsunami of voters — especially women, young people and people of color. If there are candidates worth voting for, there will be a shellacking the likes of which the Republicans have never seen.”
As for 2020, Moore adds, “As things stand right now, everybody should operate as if it’s a two-term Trump,” but if the Dems are to unseat him, “we need beloved figures running. Say what you want about Trump, but tens of millions watched his show. We need Tom Hanks, Oprah, Michelle Obama. Who would not vote for Michelle Obama?” Fahrenheit 11/9 — its title reworks that of his biggest hit by referencing the actual date when the 2016 election was called, in the early morning hours — may start with Trump, but it then ranges across a larger panorama, from the Flint, Michigan, water crisis to the growing resistance movement as exemplified by the striking West Virginia school teachers and the Parkland, Florida, students who organized the March for Our Lives in Washington.
“If people think this is Michael Moore’s Trump film and that they’re going to get two hours of Trump, Trump, Trump, I’m sorry but I’m not going to give you a simplistic film like that,” Moore says. “Yes, I will show you some stuff about Trump that you haven’t seen, but if you’re coming to see the pee tape, you’re going to the wrong movie.”
Fahrenheit 11/9 is his attempt to fully understand the forces that fueled Trump’s rise. Moore, being a humorist at heart, can’t resist starting with a mordant joke or two. Yes, he acknowledges factors like Russian President Vladimir Putin and former FBI head James Comey, but asserts that the person most responsible for the Trump presidency is … Gwen Stefani. “You hadn’t heard that before, have you?” Moore asks, delighted with the audacity of the claim.
Moore posits that when Trump realized Stefani’s performance fees as a coach on The Voice were larger than his own on The Apprentice, he staged his now-infamous Trump Tower campaign announcement to prove his popularity to NBC, which aired both shows. Says Moore, “He’d been talking about running for president since 1988, but he didn’t really want to be president. There’s no penthouse in the White House. And he doesn’t want to live in a black city. He was trying to pit NBC against another network, but it just went off the rails.” After Trump’s accusation that Mexico was sending rapists across the border, NBC cut ties with him. But Trump, suddenly finding himself cheered on by massive crowds and an indulgent media, figured why not make a serious run for the highest office in the land?
Fahrenheit 11/9 is at its most provocative when it veers away from Trump’s ascension to recount Adolf Hitler’s rise, with an emphasis on how the media in the 1930s, from The New York Times to the Jewish press, normalized the Fuhrer. Moore insists he isn’t making a direct comparison between Trump and Hitler but rather making “a serious point about fascism,” he explains.
“It comes from a book, Friendly Fascism, by a philosopher named Bertram Gross. He talks about how the fascism of the 21st century would not be like the fascism of the 20th century. It would not come with concentration camps and swastikas, but with a TV show and a smiley face. The fascists of the 21st century will convince the people to go against their own interests by using television and branding. I don’t think we should be afraid to call this out for what it is.”
A version of this story originally appeared on The Hollywood Reporter.